Monday, June 16, 2014

Events: exoskeletons in the news and on screens

Ever since seeing the Power Loader in Aliens, and reading Heinlein's Starship Troopers accounts of the MI Cap Troopers powered suits, I've been fascinated by the idea of powered exo-skeletons and wondered when they would become a reality. The time is now.
I was shown this link recently, of Eythor Bender of Berkeley Bionics bringing two amazing exoskeletons onstage, the HULC and eLEGS. The HULC is a military power-loader type affair, made by Lockheed-Martin and is human wearable, assisting and enhancing a ground soldiers ability to haul gear and kit. The eLEGS from EKSO Bionics are designed to give paraplegic people assisted walking. Both suits have the same lineage and show how the technology we have currently available is moving.

Just this week the symbolic kickoff of the World Cup was performed by a paralyzed, previously wheelchair borne person wearing a similar suit. What makes this so significant is that unlike the HULC suit, and other motor-muscle actuated feedback systems, it was controlled by readings from an EEG cap that sends readable nerve of impulses to systems which then drive the hydraulics strapped to their legs. The system "reads the mind" of the wearer and allows them to, at this stage, stand from sitting, walk forwards and return to sitting.
I lost a friend to motor-neuron disease a number of years ago, and it was tragic to see this pillar of a man gradually loose every function but his wits. Something like this might well have helped him for a time. There are plenty of people with acquired paralysis, be it road-accident injury or combat related, who could benefit from this kind of suit.
We even have an example of this kind of thinking in the movies, in Elysium, where the protagonist is fitted with (albeit in a very visceral, literally bolted on medical way) an exoskeleton. Part prosthetic, part combat-accessory, the suits in Elysium offer a very realistic representation of how this kind of technology might develop, not unlike the visions offered by Cyberpunk roleplayings Linear Frames and more recently the powered combat suits that feature in Edge of Tomorrow.

How might these fall into more common usage? Well, apart from medical recovery, and military operations, you could also expect to see this kind of technology in heavy industry, rescue and emergency services, any place that you might want either more power or stamina than a regular person might be able to muster, but less space or more maneuverable than a forklift, or with more autonomy than a wheelchair offers.

Imagine if the rescue workers at an earthquake downed building wore something like these? Firefighters at the scene of a 3-car collision? A trooper who took a piece in the back?
The real ticket will be how light they can make them, how long they will remain powered for and in the end, how much they will cost. There was a time when owning a car was outside the scope of most households, or even a wheelchair. The ReWalk is already a consumer item. Can't be long until Caterpillar bring out a bright yellow Xenomorph squisher...

We have the technology, we can improve it!


  1. When I was a weapons loader in the Air Force we so wanted a power loader from Aliens!


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